The Science of Racism Radiolab's Treatment of Hmong Experience

On September 24, NPR show Radiolab aired a 25-minute segment on Yellow Rain. In the 1960s, most Hmong had sided with America in a secret war against the Pathet Lao and its allies. More than 100,000 Hmong died in this conflict, and when American troops pulled out, the rest were left to face brutal repercussions. Those who survived the perilous journey to Thailand carried horrific stories of an ongoing genocide, among them accounts of chemical warfare. Their stories provoked a scientific controversy that still hasn’t been resolved. In its podcast, Radiolab set out to find the “fact of the matter.” Yet its relentless badgering of Hmong refugee Eng Yang and his niece, award-winning author and activist Kao Kalia Yang, provoked an outcry among its listeners, and its ongoing callous, racist handling of the issue has since been criticized in several places, including Hyphen. When Hyphen’s R.J. Lozada reached out to Kao Kalia Yang, she graciously agreed to share her side of the story for the first time. What follows are her words, and those of her uncle. *** I was pregnant. In early spring, a dear friend of mine, noted Hmong scholar and historian Paul Hillmer, contacted me to see if I knew anyone who would be willing to speak to Radiolab, an NPR show with 1.8 million listeners worldwide. On April 26, 2012, I received an email from Pat Walters, a producer at Radiolab, saying the show was looking for the Hmong perspective on Yellow Rain for a podcast. Pat wrote, “I’d love to speak with your uncle. And no, I don’t have a single specific question; I’d be delighted to hear him speak at length.” There were two New Yorker stories on Yellow Rain, and neither of them contained a Hmong voice, so Radiolab wanted to do better, to include Hmong experience. This seemed like an important opportunity to give the adults in my life a voice to share stories of what happened to them after the Americans left the jungles of Laos in 1975. I asked Uncle Eng to see if he would be interested. He was. I agreed to serve as interpreter. Before the date of the interview with Pat and Robert Krulwich, one of the show’s main hosts, I wrote Pat to ensure that the Radiolab team would respect my uncle’s story, his perspective, and the Hmong experience. I asked for questions. Pat submitted questions about Yellow Rain. On the date of the interview, Wednesday May 16, 2012, at 10 in the morning, Marisa Helms (a Minnesota-based sound producer sent by Radiolab), my husband, and I met with Uncle Eng’s family at their house in Brooklyn Center. In customary Hmong tradition, my uncle had laid out a feast of fruits and fruit drinks from the local Asian grocery store. He had risen early, went through old notebooks where he’d documented in Lao, Thai, Hmong, and a smattering of French and English, recollections of Hmong history, gathered thoughts, and written down facts of the time. The phone lines were connected to WNYC studios. Pat and Robert introduced themselves and asked us for our introductions. The questions began. They wanted to know where my uncle was during the war, what happened after the Americans left, why the Hmong ran into the jungles, what happened in the jungles, what was his experience of Yellow Rain. Uncle Eng responded to each question. The questions took a turn. The interview became an interrogation. A Harvard scientist said the Yellow Rain Hmong people experienced was nothing more than bee defecation. My uncle explained Hmong knowledge of the bees in the mountains of Laos, said we had harvested honey for centuries, and explained that the chemical attacks were strategic; they happened far away from established bee colonies, they happened where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong.  Robert grew increasingly harsh, “Did you, with your own eyes, see the yellow powder fall from the airplanes?” My uncle said that there were planes flying all the time and bombs being dropped, day and night. Hmong people did not wait around to look up as bombs fell. We came out in the aftermath to survey the damage. He said what he saw, “Animals dying, yellow that could eat through leaves, grass, yellow that could kill people — the likes of which bee poop has never done.” My uncle explained that he was serving as documenter of the Hmong experience for the Thai government, a country that helped us during the genocide. With his radio and notebooks, he journeyed to the sites where the attacks had happened, watched with his eyes what had happened to the Hmong, knew that what was happening to the Hmong were not the result of dysentery, lack of food, the environment we had been living in or its natural conditions. Robert crossed the line. He said that what my uncle was saying was “hearsay.” I had been trying valiantly to interpret everything my uncle was saying, carry meaning across the chasm of English and Hmong, but I could no longer listen to Robert’s harsh dismissal of my uncle’s experience. After two hours, I cried,

“My uncle says for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anyone was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. What happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken and our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him, or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game, we can, but I’m not interested, my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process. I, I think the interview is done.”

Before we hung up the phone, I asked for copies of the full interview. Robert told me that I would need a court order. I offered resources I have on Yellow Rain, news articles and medical texts that a doctor from Columbia University had sent my way, resources that would offer Radiolab a fuller perspective of the situation in Laos and the conditions of the Hmong exposed to the chemicals. My uncle gave Marisa a copy of a DVD he had recorded of a Hmong woman named Pa Ma, speaking of her experiences in the jungles of Laos after the Americans left, so that the Radiolab team would understand the fullness of what happened to the Hmong. After we hung up the phone, there was silence from the Radiolab team. On May 18, I emailed Pat:

“I can’t say that the experience of the interview was pleasant, but it is over now. I’ve had a day and some hours into the night to think about the content of the interview. My heart hurts for what transpired. Our dead will not rise into life. The bombs fell. The yellow powder covered the leaves and the grass, and the people suffered and died. We can only speak to what we experienced, what we saw.” I followed up on my offer of resources, “I said that I had old newspaper clippings that a doctor from Columbia sent me. I do not want it aired that I offered material I did not follow up on. If you want them, let me know. I will make photocopies and send. If you’ve no time to look through them before the completion of your show, then please also let me know so I don’t waste more heart in the effort.”

On May 21, Pat wrote back, “I’m editing our piece now and I will certainly send it to you when it’s finished. Unfortunately, I don’t think time will allow me to review the articles you mentioned.” He ended the email with a request for me to listen to an attached song to identify whether it was Hmong or not. On August 3, 2012, my husband and I went in for our first ultrasound. Our baby was 19 weeks old.  The black screen flickered to life. I saw a baby huddled in a ball, feet planted on either side, face turned away. The room was very silent. I prodded my baby to move. I thought the volume hadn’t been turned on. The technician was quiet. She did her measurements. She left the room. The monitor was on. I tapped my belly, asked my baby to move, so I could see if it was a boy or a girl. Two doctors came into the room. The younger one held onto my feet. The older one said, “I’m sorry to tell you. Your baby is dead.” On August 4, after 26 hours of induced labor, listening to the cries of mothers in pain and then the cries of babies being born, I gave birth to a little boy, six inches long, head swollen with liquid, eyes closed, and his mouth open like a little bird. On August 6 my cell phone rang. It was Pat, and he wanted me to call in to an automated line at Radiolab reading the credits for the segment in Hmong. I told him I had just lost my baby. I told him I didn’t want to. He said, “If you feel better, you can call in.” I didn’t feel better. On September 24, 2012, Radiolab aired their Yellow Rain segment in an episode titled “The Fact of the Matter.” Everybody in the show had a name, a profession, institutional affiliation except Eng Yang, who was identified as “Hmong guy,” and me, “his niece.” The fact that I am an award-winning writer was ignored. The fact that my uncle was an official radio man and documenter of the Hmong experience to the Thai government during the war was absent. In the interview, the Hmong knowledge of bees or the mountains of Laos were completely edited out. The aired story goes something like this: Hmong people say they were exposed to Yellow Rain, one Harvard scientist and ex-CIA American man believe that’s hogwash; Ronald Reagan used Yellow Rain and Hmong testimony to blame the Soviets for chemical warfare and thus justified America’s own production of chemical warfare. Uncle Eng and I were featured as the Hmong people who were unwilling to accept the “Truth.” My cry at the end was interpreted by Robert as an effort to “monopolize” the story. They leave a moment of silence. Then the team talks about how we may have shown them how war causes pain, how Reagan’s justification for chemical warfare was a hugely important issue to the world — if not for “the woman” — because clearly she doesn’t care. There was no acknowledgement that Agent Orange and other chemicals had long been produced by the US government and used in Southeast Asia. The team left no room for science that questioned their own aims. Instead, they chose to end the show with hushed laughter. The day after the show aired, critical feedback began streaming in on the Radiolab website. People from around the world began questioning the segment, particularly Robert’s interrogation of a man who survived a genocidal regime. My cry had awakened something that was “painful,” and made people “uncomfortable.” Pat wrote me to ask me to write a public response to the show so Radiolab could publish it in the wake of the critical response and the concern of its audience. I wrote one.  My response was,

There is a great imbalance of power at play. From the get-go you got to ask the questions. I sent an email inquiring about the direction the interview would go, where you were headed — expressing to you my concern about the treatment of my uncle and the respect with which his story deserves. You never responded to the email. I have it and I can forward it to you if you’d like. During the course of the interview, my uncle spent a long time explaining Hmong knowledge of bees in the mountains of Laos, not the hills of Thailand, but the mountains of Laos. You all edited it out. Robert Krulwich has the gall to say that I “monopolize” — he who gets to ask the questions, has control over editing, and in the end: the final word. Only an imperialist white man can say that to a woman of color and call it objectivity or science. I am not lost on the fact that I am the only female voice in that story, and in the end, that it is my uncle and I who cry…as you all laugh on.

Pat did not publish my response. Instead, on September 26, Jad Abumrad, the other main host of Radiolab, wrote a public letter offering more “context” to the Yellow Rain segment. There was no mention of the fact that they did not take up my offer to look at additional resources that would complicate their assumptions. My friend Paul Hillmer had offered academic research by another Ivy-league scientist that called into question the Harvard professor’s conclusions, which the team had refused to look at. Jad wrote about journalism and integrity and how Radiolab stands by Robert’s “robust” approach to Truth, the “science” of the matter. Radiolab went into the original podcast and altered it. In Jad’s words, he “inserted a line in the story that puts our ending conversation in a bit more context.” Many Radiolab listeners used the Jad response as a platform to dialogue and critique the show further. On September 30, Robert wrote a response to address concerns about the Yellow Rain segment. He wrote, “My intent is to question, listen, and explore.” He apologized for the “harshness” of his tone. He stated,

In this segment, our subject was President Reagan’s 1982 announcement that he believed the Soviets had manufactured chemical weapons and were using them on Hmong people in Laos — and a subsequent announcement by scientists at Harvard and Yale that the President was wrong, that the so-called ‘weapons’ were not weapons at all, but bees relieving themselves in the forest. While there had been previous accounts of this controversy, very few journalists had asked the Hmong refugees hiding in that forest what happened, what they’d seen. That’s why we wanted to speak with Mr. Yang and his niece, Ms. Yang.

Robert did not mention the research they did not look at. He did not mention the Hmong knowledge of bees. He did not mention the racism at work, the privileging of Western education over indigenous knowledge, or the fact that he is a white man in power calling from the safety of Time, his class, and popular position — to brand the Hmong experience of chemical warfare one founded on ignorance. The tides of audience response shifted. Whereas the majority of listeners were “uncomfortable” with what transpired, and had called fervently for apologies to be issued to Uncle Eng and the Hmong community, some of them were beginning to say, “Robert is a journalist in search of truth.” Others wrote, “At least the Hmong story was heard.” Few questioned the fullness of what had transpired; many took the “research” of Radiolab to be thorough and comprehensive, despite the fact that sound research by respected scholars and scientists believing that Yellow Rain was a chemical agent used against the Hmong was not discussed or investigated. Dr. C.J. Mirocha, the scientist who conducted the first tests on Yellow Rain samples and found toxins, and whose work has never been scientifically refuted, was not interviewed. The work of researchers who argued against Meselson’s bee dung theory was also never mentioned. On October 3, my husband and I had a spirit releasing ceremony for Baby Jules. The day was cold. The wind bit hard. The ground was dry without the autumn rains. We buried the memory box from the hospital beneath a tall tree, much older than us, an old tree on a small island. We wrote letters to Baby Jules on pink balloons and released them into the sky. I wrote, “Baby Jules, there is no need to be scared. You have been so brave already.” On October 7, I received an email from Dean Cappello, the Chief Content Officer at WNYC, notifying me that Radiolab had once more “amended” the Yellow Rain podcast so that Robert could apologize at the end, specifically to Uncle Eng for the harshness of his tone and to me for saying that I was trying to “monopolize” the conversation. I listened to the doctored version. In addition to Robert’s apologies — which completely failed to acknowledge the dismissal of our voices and the racism that transpired/s — Radiolab had simply re-contextualized their position, taken out the laughter at the end, and “cleaned” away incriminating evidence. On October 8, I wrote Mr. Cappello back:

Dear Mr. Cappello,Thank you for writing me directly. I appreciate the gesture. When I lived in New York for several years, I became a fan of your radio station, and grew to believe in the work you all do there in furthering understanding. I just listened to the amended podcast this morning. I am struck by how many times a podcast on truth can (be) doctored, to protect itself. I don’t know how much you are aware of in regards to this matter, but I believe there are certain things you should know very directly from me: My uncle and I were contacted by Radiolab because they said they wanted to know the Hmong experience of Yellow Rain. Ronald Reagan and American politics were not at all mentioned in any of the correspondences between me and Radiolab. For the show to say that we were not “ambushed” and that they have been completely honest with us from the beginning is a falsehood. Before the interview, I wrote Pat specifically to tell him that I wanted to make sure Radiolab would respect what my uncle had to share about the Hmong experience of Yellow Rain. During the course of the entire, unedited interview — which I really hope that you have listened to — Pat and Robert dismissed my uncle’s experiences again and again for two hours, thus in the edited version: you hear me cry. Robert argues this was because my uncle and I got angry and couldn’t buy the “truth” of what the scientists were saying, but that is not what happened. During the interview, I told Pat and Robert that I had additional resources about what happened in Laos, that complicate the “bee crap” theory, and that I would be happy to share them. After the interview, despite the fact that it left us feeling horribly, I honored my words and wrote Pat offering the additional resources. Pat wrote back saying that Radiolab didn’t have enough time. When the show aired, I was distraught to hear all that had been edited out: particularly, my uncle’s deep knowledge of bees and the mountains of Laos, as well as his official role as documenter for the Thai government on with the Hmong during this time. As well, I was shocked to hear my uncle reduced to “Hmong guy” and me to “his niece” while everyone else on the show was introduced with their titles and official affiliations. This, amongst other aspects of this show, showed a side of Radiolab and a clear privileging of Western knowledge that was far from the truth. After the show aired, as criticism appeared on their site, Pat wrote me asking me for a public statement of how I received the show. I did so and he refused to publish it, instead Jad’s further “contextualization” was put up. Not only was this disrespectful but it was a complete dismissal of my voice on the matter. *I reiterate what I wrote to Pat, only a white man can say a woman of color is trying to “monopolize” a conversation he has full power of in the asking of questions, the editing, and the contextualizing and dares to call it “objectivity” and science. My uncle and I agreed to an interview on the Hmong experience of Yellow Rain. We spoke honestly and authentically from where we were positioned. We did not try to convince anybody of what we lived through, merely, we wanted to share it. Our treatment by Radiolab has been humiliating and hurtful not only during the interview, the editing process, and the airing of the original podcast, but in the continued public letters by Jad and Robert to their audience, and revisions to the original segment — that continue to dismiss the validity of our voices and perspectives, and in fact, silences them. While I will not presume to know the intentions of the hosts, I am responding to you very directly about what transpired, and what they continue to do. While I respect the work of journalism, I believe that journalistic integrity was lost in the ways Radiolab handled my uncle and the Hmong story. I appreciate what you have to say about the role of journalism and the fact that many of your colleagues are now interested in pursuing more of the Hmong story. I have a proposition for you: that one of your colleagues do a story on the Hmong experience of what happened in Laos after the Americans left, a story that will respect the Hmong voices, and redeem all of our faith in good journalism that transcends cultures and revives history so that our shared realities become more whole. I am happy to help in any way I can. I cannot afford to give in to cynicism. For Radiolab specifically, my uncle has put together a small message in English for the many listeners who have responded to him compassionately and kindly. I want Radiolab to air his message to their audiences, so that his voice can be heard and his message of love and human rights can be delivered. It is short, and it is a clear reflection of where he is positioned in all of this…as he has said to me throughout this whole travesty, “Me Naib, bullets didn’t kill me, so how can words uttered on airwaves I cannot see hurt me?” — even as he suffers before me. I await your response to this email.

There has yet to be a response. I am no longer pregnant. I am no longer scared. I, like my baby, have been so brave already.

*** Introduction by Hyphen columnist Kirti Kamboj __ Originally published on October 22, 2012 at